In the beginning there was only hard power, a straightforward concept that made for easy mathematics: If country A has fewer warships than country B, it is weaker and thus in need of allies. The advent of nuclear weapons simplified these calculations even further by adding a trump card to the deck. But everything changed in 1990 when US academic Joseph Nye descended and said “let there be soft power.”

And we the pundits rejoiced, for here was a concept we could really write about, here was a subjectivity.

For the uninitiated, Nye’s beautifully simple definition of soft power is “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion.” In other words, it’s about convincing other international actors that your best interests are in fact their best interests, making them cooperate out of some imagined advantage rather than fear of punishment. They help because they want to help.

Soft power can help convince far-flung populations that a given state is a trustworthy, even altruistic. In geopolitical terms it can make competitors less likely to engage in arms races and the kind of balancing behavior that hard power growth is usually met with; for proof, just consider the radically different perceptions towards US and Chinese military power evident in governments throughout Asia.

Soft power has many other potential benefits, from easier consensus-building in the United Nations to the economic boons of a thriving tourism industry and attracting the best and brightest workers in the world.

You could say it’s almost like a national branding, but the advertising analogy only goes so far. Soft power accumulates in an indirect and gradual way – over years of listening to the BBC World Service, not because you saw a “Britain is great!” poster on the Moscow subway.

It is this nebulous quality that makes soft power so enigmatic to policymakers worldwide. Governments are desperate to reap its rewards, but they’re frequently unwilling to forego the imperatives of the political ‘now’ for some intangible persuasion project in the distant future. Nowhere is this kind of thinking more apparent than in Asia of late.


Taiwan was forced to develop an appreciation for soft power early on due to its unique international position, or lack thereof. Deprived of the ability to promote itself via conventional diplomatic channels, Taipei established an international network of “economic and cultural offices” that perform consular functions as well as raise local awareness about the island. The latter activities include arranging for up-and-coming political and publishing luminaries to visit Taiwan, supporting efforts by Taiwanese artists and designers to exhibit and sell their work abroad, and attracting promising students to come and study Mandarin in Taiwan’s universities.

Taiwan’s soft power goals are also unique. In addition to economic considerations, the Taiwanese government strives to underline its very existence and in doing so challenge the diplomatic siege imposed by Beijing.

One soft power success story is Taiwan’s own Ang Lee, the celebrated Oscar-winning director of Life of Pi and Brokeback Mountain. These movies might never have seen the light of day had it not been for a writing competition organized by Taiwan’s now-defunct Government Information Office, which provided Mr. Lee with the funding to shoot his first movie.

Now enter the Sunflower Movement, a series of student-led protests over an impending services free-trade agreement with China. The sunflower protesters have thus far been able to draw large crowds to their cause (a Taipei rally on March 30 pulled anywhere between 100,000-500,000 people), and they have adopted a modus operandi of strict non-violence, even in the face of a forceful police eviction in the early hours of March 24.

The movement poses a huge dilemma for the Ma administration, which has remained unwilling to backtrack on its central platform of improving cross-strait economic ties. Each passing day brings the possibility of a violent confrontation around the occupied Legislative Yuan, especially with the recent arrival of criminal elements like the ‘White Wolf’ and his White Justice Alliance. That the students may actually vacate the building this Thursday is due to backchannel negotiations by the politically-isolated Wang Jinping; the Ma administration is still refusing to give any real ground to the students’ demands.

Hanging in the balance is Taiwan’s principal soft power asset – its hard-won democratic society, which doesn’t just sell the island to the Western world, but to those sections of the Chinese public who see Taiwan as a preview of what democracy might look like in their country.


But not so fast, says China’s Global Times, which in a March 31 editorial declared that the sunflower protests “blot Taiwan image,” and “caused second thoughts over the island’s democratic system by some Chinese mainland intellectuals and members of the public.” And then a few lines down, tucked in between two unrelated paragraphs: “some also see the violent and chaotic movement as street politics that reflect flaws in Taiwan’s democracy.”

The Global Times is an English daily newspaper owned by the People’s Daily. Its focus on international news is meant to provide a Chinese take on global events, and by extension build sympathy and understanding for Beijing’s position. Yet as a soft power tool it ends up being wielded with all the precision and delicacy of a blind neurosurgeon. The intended ‘moral of the story’ is readily apparent in most articles, as are a few glaring grammatical errors. In this way the Global Times simply trumpets China’s interests instead of attempting to align them with those of its readers. Achieving the latter is admittedly easier said than done, likely requiring some level of actual reform (indeed the attractiveness of a country’s political system is a factor in its ability to project soft power), but until such a change comes about the Global Times will persist as an object of ridicule — not persuasion.


The previous examples could be written off as understandable, if not necessary sacrifices: Beijing for its closed system and Taipei for the enduring legacy of Ma’s cross-strait rapprochement. But the same can’t be said for Tokyo’s recent misstep. When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine on December 26, 2013, he did so as the leader of a party that had been decisively swept into power a mere six months before. His mandate to rule was beyond doubt, so whatever motivated him to incite a chorus of regional condemnation, it almost certainly wasn’t worth the resulting damage to Japan’s image. Not long after the shrine incident, 300 copies of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl were found vandalized in Tokyo public libraries. Now Prime Minister Abe is paying official visits to the Anne Frank House and carefully explaining to the international media how important it is to learn the historical lessons of the 20th century – not exactly the kind of stuff that builds a compelling national brand.

Everyone wants it, no one gets it

That the benefits of soft power are obvious doesn’t mean they’re quantifiable, so it should come as no surprise that governments are often unwilling to do what it takes to garner soft power out of deference to more immediate interests.  Until a more holistic approach is worked out – one that at least appears to sacrifice short-term gain for some higher ideal – it looks like no east Asian state will be rising to challenge the United States in the soft power department any time soon, even if that crown is ripe for the taking.